“What? No. They want us to do what? ”
Steve stared back at him, weariness chasing resignation in his face. “Hunt down this terrorist cell in Abu Dhabi.”
“They have their own agents for that,” Tony protested, defiantly settling into his too comfortable couch. He was too old for this, okay, not that he'd admit it (they'd take the Iron Man suit from him over his dead body), but he didn't have super healing and his bones did not heal from fractures in less than 18 hours. “Army, SHIELD, secret spies. Why us?”
“They did send their own agents,” Steve replied. “Natasha and Clint,” and Tony wanted to kick himself. “They asked us to go as backup.” Steve's gaze raked over his face, read the reluctance there. “You don't have to...”
“The hell I don't,” Tony interrupted roughly, because he'd be damned if abandonment got tacked onto his list of failures. “JARVIS, finish that repaint for the suit; I'll go pack. How much time have I got?”
“Wheels up in two hours,” Steve replied, a flash of gratefulness in tired blue eyes.
In retrospect, Steve conceding an out, rather than trying to persuade his attendance, should've been his first clue.
The mission was successful, for a loose definition of successful. The terrorist cell was duly hunted down, and they made damn sure they wouldn't rise again.
Natasha also wouldn't rise again properly for the next two months, and would be off duty for a lot longer than that; even the Black Widow could not operate (as) effectively in the field with shattered legs in double casts.
Tony still wouldn't cross her when she wanted her coffee, though.
When Fury first discussed the Avengers Initiative with Tony (and before he flat out refused him entry, otherwise he'd have told Fury to fuck off right off the bat), Tony had been under the impression that the Earth's Mightiest Heroes were the contingency plan to end all contingency plans. That is, they'd be the going-for-broke, Hail-Mary, do-or-die contingency plan, the last-ditch effort when the Army, the Navy, Air Force, SHIELD, FBI, CIA, and whatever other forces the government could conjure all failed. At that point, to hell with subtlety and subterfuge, they'd pull out the tin-can man and hulking rage monster because what the hell did they have to lose, right?
What Fury apparently hadn't counted on was the Avengers' popularity with the masses. Maybe it was the star-spangled national icon leading them, maybe it was just the bright colours, but either way the nation had taken to the ragtag band of superheroes with surprisingly open arms. Even the other government forces were amiable, although Tony suspected part of that was just relief at dumping the nuke diversions and other suicidally heroic actions on someone else.
Tony didn't mind being popular. He liked being liked; he didn't get much of that in his youth. And he navigated the limelight better than any of them: Natasha and Clint had charm trained into them, but Tony lived his life under scrutinizing eyes; he did not swish, he sashayed. (He would, however, concede that Steve was much better at press conferences than he.)
However, he did mind being pulled into the field for the superhero equivalent of rescuing a cat stuck up a tree. Really, it was great being liked, but he had a life, a company to run, things to invent, armour to smith. Clint needed an upgrade for his quiver and Bruce needed magical stretching yoga pants, and Pepper's already after him for not getting enough food and sleep, really SHIELD, give him a break, okay?
So maybe he could be forgiven for drifting off just a little, little bit in one of the training sessions; Steve's sledgehammer fist slipped past his defenses and landed cleanly on his torso, and Tony's flying backwards before his mind registered pain.
Tony was pushing 40, and really didn't heal as well as he used to. 10 years ago those cracked ribs would've healed before they had a chance to re-fracture. Steve had apologized up and down and backwards, and Tony waved him off (for the allotted movement of his arms, anyway); shit happened, and he's had much worse.
Maybe Tony should take Pepper's health lectures a little more seriously. Because Steve always remembered to pull his punches, given his strength. Even if Steve's looking like a mack truck ran over him (it did, yesterday), he'd never forget something this important, for a man who prided himself on control.
Obviously, Tony's bones just suck. 30-mumble is a little too early for osteoporosis to set in, wasn't it?
Still, the guilty, haunted looks Steve shot him for weeks were painful, much more so than his ribs.
Tony has to hand it to Steve: one'd never know, from the way he stood in front of the public and talked to the press, that he went from shouldering one superhero's burden to five. Bright-eyed (despite one hell of a shiner) and confident, he positively exuded reassurance from every pore, telling everyone that no, Hawkeye will be just fine, minor injuries, full prognosis of health.
In fact, Clint had fallen five stories to land on concrete two days ago, shattering several important bones in his arms and neck; he was lucky his skull was so thick. But from the way Steve was smoothly redirecting the questions, one'd think Clint was just off for a margarita and would be jaunting back shortly, yup, no worries.
“By the way,” Tony asked idly, squinting at the TV from the couch, “is something odd with Cap's face, or is it just me?”
Clint cracked one eye open to glance at the screen. “Looks like he forgot to shave this morning.”
“...oh.” Tony briefly thought of Uncle Sam.
“Captain?” On the screen, an overenthusiastic reporter jabbed a microphone into Steve's face. “Do you have any comments on the increasing property and collateral damage as of late?”
Another joined in: “Is there any truth to the rumour that you are deeming damages as acceptable, now that your team is down to two members?”
And one more: “Can you tell us of an action plan you will put into place to limit excessive collateral?”
Steve swallowed, and for a second, something slipped in his mask: a minuscule slouch of the shoulders, a minute dulling of the eyes, and the captain suddenly looked very, very tired.
Then it was gone, and Steve was wearing that bruised face and arm sling as readily as any Hollywood starlet wore her heels. “I will take full responsibility for those incidents, and I assure you that as always, we aim for not having any damage, collateral or otherwise.” He glanced around at all the cameras, stopping at the reporters who spoke. “In the interim, I do not expect that the temporary absences of the other Avengers will affect our yardsticks for what is acceptable. With a little time to adjust, the absences of the other members should not be noticeable or affect the public...”
“Lgun,” Natasha muttered.
“Pathetic liar,” Tony growled.
“I don't think he's lying.” Clint grimaced. “He thinks he can make up the difference.”
“He's an idiot,” Tony announced, but what he meant was, He'll die trying.
“You could call for backup,” Tony suggested casually, when Steve returned from the press conference, the rescue efforts, and the meeting with SHIELD.
Steve gave him an exhausted smile that was one part amusement, one part dismissive, and three parts not-quite reassurance. “Who am I supposed to call? Besides, Bruce is worth a thousand men.”
And the other guy is worth none of them, strategy-wise. “But...”
Steve shook his head; the light bounced off the cut of his cheeks, just sharp enough to be hollowed. “I'll be fine, I heal fast. Thanks, though.”
30 minutes later, JARVIS pinged Tony politely to notify him that “Sir, Captain Rogers walked through the door of his bedroom. While it was closed.”
Tony didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
“They're getting sloppy,” Natasha said to Tony flatly, in the way that meant, I'm worried.
Tony growled, low in his throat. “Don't tell me that. Tell Fury. Or Coulson. Or the goddamned president. I'm not the one sending their super-healing asses out there!” He flicked a glance towards the two figures sleeping against the coffee table, one still swathed in white. Steve didn't go anywhere without bandages nowadays. “Damn them for going anyway.”
Natasha was silent for a moment. “Who else would? Or could?”
“Better question,” Clint interrupted darkly. “Could you convince either of them to stay off the field, especially when there's no one else to call?”
That was the better question, and Tony didn't have an answer.
JARVIS informed Tony, one late afternoon, that Dr. Banner was running out of pants, and Captain Rogers' supply of non-bloodied uniforms were running dangerously low as well.
“It's bad PR for Earth's mightiest heroes to moon the public while on duty,” Clint commented.
Tony responded by buying the entire season's stock of pants from Nordstrom and Bloomingdale, but he had no suggestions for Steve. He wasn't allowed to smith anything for at least another 6 weeks.
“No, noooooo – behind you, damn it!”
“Bozhe moi – right, turn right – “ Half a city block, reduced to rubble. Natasha sighed. “Banner...”
Stark Industries was Tony's baby (along with his robots), but right now, he'd trade everything in it for a thunder god not on leave in Asgard. Or a shared healing factor between everyone. Or their own army of fighting robots (sadly, Dummy was not battle-capable). Or, well, anything really.
Because, goddamn it, they were losing.
The humongous widescreen TV, displaying the wreckage that was downtown Manhattan – currently still being demolished further as time went on – soldiered on in its task, despite the cushions and various other things lobbed at it in its viewers' frustration. At least they'd refrained from shouting (much); Clint had threatened to elbow Tony in the ribs if he disrupted his communications, and that was enough to quiet him...somewhat.
“Cap, 15 degrees to your left,” Clint said tersely into the comm, eyes flicking between the many displays. He'd insisted on spotting even if he couldn't be there; the hacked feeds of the various live news helicopters weren't comparable to Hawkeye by a long shot, but they were better than nothing. “4 stories up – look out!”
Too slow; the shot caught Steve in the side, finally piercing the last of his armour. He dropped to his knees, and a second shot went through his shoulder in a crimson spray. The super soldier crumpled, blood blooming roses in his ruined suit. Clint's earpiece rang with a high, piercing scream.
“Steve?! Steve!!” Beside Clint, Tony and Natasha cursed.
There was a roar that could be heard across the city, even without the comm or the hacked newsfeeds; Hulk leaped across four ruined city blocks to land by his comrade's side, bellowing his outrage. Shots pinged off his armoured skin; in answer, arms the size of fallen oaks raked the snipers out of their nests.
“Give them hell, big guy,” Clint murmured, and Natasha took the comm off his ear just before Hulk's thunderclap – not quite up to Thor's standards, but good enough - blew out every speaker in the room before JARVIS could mute them.
Hulk had to carry Steve back after that one, and the damned idiot had smiled at them and said he'd be fine while hemorrhaging from his side.
Tony's never been one to read reports with any seriousness – just ask Pepper – but he's been paying a much closer eye on the debriefing reports that Steve's submitting nowadays, not in the least because he's the only one on the field that could (Hulk, bless him, was plenty cognizant, but he wasn't about to write one, and Bruce didn't remember much after he transformed back).
Now, whatever could be said about Tony's sense and sensibilities, he actually has a very good memory, when he gave half a damn about the subject. When the subject happened to be his idiotic teammates with an overgrown superhero/martyr complex, well...
So when Steve's most recent report included a medical chart detailing the exact same lacerated liver (3 inches, right lobe anterior, grade 4) that he had last week, on top of his newly cracked ribs, multiple bullet wounds, and concussion, that was the absolute last straw.
“JARVIS. Patch me into Fury right now.”
For all the just claims against Fury of being a manipulative bastard, he's not stupid. Usually. He was, however, trying desperately to prove Tony wrong on this point today.
“ - You're not listening,” Tony snarled. “Screw what he's saying to you, he's not fit for duty. Neither of them are; you've ran them into the ground.”
Fury replied with...bullshit, probably. Not that Tony was listening, either. “Are you even reading his med charts? He's not fucking healing anymore, it's that bad. And your only excuse before was because both of them super heal. I don't care if you have to serenade the goddamned Batman on bended knee to come in their stead, they. Are. Off. Duty.”
JARVIS, scintillating AI that he was, cut the line before Tony had to ask, and before Fury could answer.
Tony wasn't finished. “JARVIS, block all phones calls and outside communication from...everyone other than Pepper and Rhodey. If Bruce or Steve tries to leave the Tower, initiate lockdown, code alpha.”
“Already done, sir,” JARVIS replied, and Tony really, really loved his AI.
“Forced vacation?” came Bruce's voice behind him, dry as dust. Tony turned. Bruce was leaning against the doorframe, head cocked. He was wearing his new pants.
“Absolutely.” Tony stared into Bruce's bruised eyes, daring him to say any different. “Will there be any...problems with that?”
“...no,” Bruce admitted after a moment, and Tony thought he looked relieved.
Steve, it turned out, wasn't as easy to convince.
“No, seriously, I'll be okay in a day or two,” he insisted, though he at least knew better than to try and sit up to prove his point, four hours post-surgery.
“The only way you're leaving this Tower is by storming through it, and even you won't make it through a 50 floor drop out the window,” Tony retorted, scowling down at the bedridden captain. The man was whiter than his sheets, for fuck's sake. “Also, fair warning, the Tower's defense systems may turn on you if you lay siege. JARVIS takes offense to people breaking things.”
“Tony...I can't...” And Tony wanted to shake him again, because yes, he could, when he's worn through like a threadbare blanket. “Who else would - ?”
“Listen, you're a right wreck,” Tony snapped, glancing briefly over at Bruce. “Someone else will take over - whoever else did this shit before we started picking up their pieces. The bad guys will get their dues, the media will get their darling, and you will get your bedrest. In a fucking straitjacket if necessary.” If they really couldn't find anyone else Tony'd suit up, all his ribs and organs be damned, but it wouldn't come to that. “Get over yourself; you are not so damn important that the world will end without you. You're taking a couple of weeks of medical leave, not a year-long sabbatical.”
“This isn't about me,” Steve began, wincing sharply as something tugged on a wound. “I - ”
“Cap? Steve?” Clint cut in, almost conversational, before Tony could start shouting. “You ever taken first aid?”
Steve mm-hmmed an affirmative. Sweat began beading on his face.
“Do you remember the first thing they taught?” Clint didn't wait for an answer; he went on, steel bared in his voice. “You are the most important person. Not the victims. Not the dead. You. This absolutely is about you, because if you drop,” and now his voice has quieted, “who's going to save everyone else?”
Steve stared at Clint, protest dying in his throat. Tony, Natasha and Bruce loomed behind Clint in support. It was perhaps a bit unfair to spring a collective staring contest onto an incapacitated man. Still.
After a long moment, Steve sighed his resignation and sank deeper into the bed, eyes sliding closed. For 6-foot-plus of American muscle, he suddenly looked very small, too-shallow breaths rattling in a too-broad chest.
It didn't feel like victory, but Tony'd take what he could get.
Steve slept through most of the next four days. Even after, he was still whiter than most of his sheets, although the colour had begun returning to his drawn (frail) face.
“How're you feeling?” Bruce asked him once.
“Fine.” Blue eyes, still glassy, glanced at them, his every muscle taut.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “You're allowed to say it hurts,” he commented mildly, because painkillers didn't work on Captain America.
“Nothing you can do about that.”
Tony and Bruce exchanged a look, and had to concede his point.
The nice thing about the Stark Tower's med labs was that every bed had its own room and was large, spacious, and decked out with the best in modern entertainment. (Tony had outright refused to entertain the simultaneous horrors of bedridden and bored for when he would need treatment himself.)
The best entertainment system, however, was only as good as the movie that was played, and even then that was only as good as the man who actually watched it.
“Too soon for a movie?” Tony asked. Steve, pillowed against Bruce's shoulder, didn't stir.
“Give him another week.” Bruce brushed strewn hair out of closed eyes. The lines of his face has relaxed some, at least.
“Well,” Clint drawled, hiding soft eyes and shared smiles, “in the time honoured tradition of those to fall asleep first...”
Tony glanced at the rest, and one by one, they smirked.
Five minutes later:
“Bozhe moi, Stark – his face, not his eyebrows!”
“Sue me,” Tony hissed back, waving the razor at her, “the canvas keeps moving!”
The Lion King played on in the background, utterly forgotten.